Observations from a Turkish Hamam
If you are expecting the frills and tenderness of a Western style spa, drop your expectations and empty your mind, freeing it from any past experiences that might indicate what is awaiting you here.
The Sultan Hamam in the Çaliş Beach neighborhood of Fethiye is a four story whitewashed building with a welcoming back terrace facing away from the seaside boardwalk. I wheel my bike up to the entrance and lock the frame to the front terrace railing. I enter the hamam and am immediately greeted in English, “Hello, lady! Welcome! Where you from?” Although this hamam is frequented by Fethiye locals, it is also located in a part of town heavily inhabited by English, German, and Russian expatriates. I am given a brochure with photos and prices, all services listed in English and prices in British pounds. I scan the options and opt for the hamam sauna, steam room, scrub and short massage, all for 40 Turkish liras (about 12 US dollars). I am hurried into the changing room and, as the hamam is co-ed, I am instructed to put on my bikini and cover myself with a towel. I walk down the marble steps into what appears to be the basement, clutching the railing as my plastic sandals slide on the slippery surface.
First stop, the sauna.
A man sitting on the wooden sauna bench throws water onto the hot rocks, releasing fresh steam into the air. I am instanly inundated with the heat, my skin already pink and glistening. I scan the dark bodies around me and envy their olive glow. They sweat and shine in their beautiful brown skin, lounging comfortably on the benches as I take shallow and rigid breaths and try not to pass out. I decide I will stay in long enough until the next person walks out so that I can follow their lead for what is to come next. The same man who splashed the rocks as I entered the sauna, clutches his towel and rises to leave. I do the same and follow him out and into the next room. The room is covered in white and gray marble from ceiling to floor and windows of intricate brilliant blue tile mosaics line the walls. Four stone pillars outline the corners of a knee level raised surface where a large and balding man lays face up with a small black pillow beneath his head. He is almost naked save for his towel covering only his groin, leaving his large belly exposed. He is surrounded by a cloud of bubbles and another man is standing over his large and slippery body, vigorously massaging his legs and glutes. There is a stark contrast between the beauty of this white underground room and the jiggling, hairy body of the reclined Turkish man. All of the men around me are hairy, large and in their element, completely uninterested in my opinion of how their bodies compare to the glistening marble and blue tiles of the hamam walls.
I follow the man over to the steam room at the opposite end of the hamam. He opens the door and an unbearable rush of heat and steam comes pouring out. I am already overwhelmed and overheating so I shake my head in polite decline as he holds the door open for me. Instead I sit outside of the steam room and watch the big bald men receive the rest of his soapy massage. Suddenly, a man with a towel wrapped tightly around his waist nudges my arm and points to the raised platform, motioning for me to lay down. It is impossible to tell who works here and who is a paying customer but I seem to have no choice so I obey his orders. Everything happens very quickly and it is not until I am laying on the marble platform that I get the chance to settle and really observe what is happening. The room echoes with the sounds of deep voices, hands on wet skin, and splashing water all around. I listen and lay on my back and wait for the man to come back. I have no time to wonder or reconsider as he readily emerges by my side with a black mit on his hand and begins to vigorously scrub my feet and legs. The mit has a rough but bearable texture and he proceeds to follow a scrubbing pattern over my entire body. He is not gentle and when it is time for me to roll over he slides his hands underneath me and roughly guides my body in a slippery roll onto my stomach. He scrubs my back clean and as I sit up for him to scrub the sides of my neck and arms, it is then that I notice the layers of skin rolling off of my body. He looks at the dirt and at me, “First time?” “Evet. Yes, first time.”
He grabs my elbow and guides me to sit by a sink in the shape of a giant bowl. He fills a small bucket with waters and splashes my face, continuing to dump water over me until my entire body is rinsed.
Once back on the platform, the sudsy massage begins. I let out a yelp as, without warning and in one swift motion, my entire body is covered with a cloud of bubbles, concealing my body from neck to toes. I lift my head to peek above the bubbles and watch as the man kneads, twists, turns, slaps, cracks and pulls my entire body until I am sure that I have been scrubbed, washed and sufficiently relieved of all the air in my joints. I am possibly clean enough to last me for the rest of next week. I rise once more and he rinses my body from the sink again. This time he grabs a bottle of shampoo and washes my hair as I sit helpless, trying my best to keep my eyes and mouth closed. When he is finished, he washes me off a final time and slaps my back.
“Finish,” he says.
The tornado that just enveloped my body in sweat, steam, scrubbing, soap, and rough massaging hands, has just spit me out as the cleanest, most physically raw version of myself.
I sit upstairs on the sofa, drinking Turkish tea and admiring my clean and soft skin. I decide that Turkish baths are definitely for me. Screw tacky spa music and gentle invitations. In Turkey, they are pros and bath time is a business I am happy to support.